By Melissa Lane
In John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the tragically overeducated, comically pompous and flatulent anti-hero Ignatius J. Reilly says, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go to a smart bar!”
In reading the book whose author famously offed himself before his work was finally published to unanimous critical acclaim, immense popularity and the awarding of a Pulitzer prize, Joe Shanahan got the first twinkle in his eye for what would later become a Chicago clubbing institution.
In the very early eighties, Shanahan threw some legendary parties in his loft. Tying them into gallery openings, they gained momentum as a common focal point for the local art community and different emerging music scenes. At that time, the Chicago social and cultural landscape offered nothing of the sort that Shanahan had recently experienced in New York City. He was hungry to see an outlet for that kind of genre-crisscrossing downtown culture in his own hometown.
Shanahan recalls, “I distinctly remember how Division Street and Rush Street clubs would not even let you on the dancefloor without someone of the opposite sex. If you tried to dance by yourself or in a same-sex couple, the bouncer would tell you to leave.”
Smart Bar would start its first life in July of that year on the fourth floor of the building that remains its home to this day. From the get-go, it aggressively pursued a programming format that reflected the explosive period in music that inspired it.
Shanahan describes what they played as “early sort of house, basically mixes of current R&B tracks Frankie Knuckles was spinning at the Warehouse combined with early electro-hip-hop like Afrika Bambaataa with the rock sound led by Talking Heads, Liquid Liquid, Soul Sonic Force, those were the sort of NY influences. The British influences were The Clash, Public Image, New Order, Depeche Mode… there was sort of this electro-pop-R&B thing…” Later in the conversation he reflects, “You know Malcolm McLaren once said, ‘If you wait ten years, everything comes back.’”
He has witnessed the revolving door of trends spin more than a few times around: twenty-four years offers a vantage point rarely achieved in clubland. Along with old-timer Berlin, Smart Bar occupies a short list of nightclubs that can boast that kind of seniority.
Mark Farina remembers when he first started going to Smart Bar in the mid-eighties, an era he refers to as his “industrial days of Ministry and Front 242.” He wore black and hung long bangs down the front of his face. “It had that dark feel that I was into, and I was underage but I somehow got in. I was lucky to know the right people.”
The way he remembers it, “They were into everything, but those were the nights that I was into, when they played punk/alternative… more industrial, new wave type stuff… everything from New Order to Quando, Quando to Revolting Cocks.”
In 1987, Smart Bar gave him his first weekly. He called it “LSD Tuesdays.” He wanted to fuse minimal Detroit and house with industrial. Shanahan laughs in his retelling of how Farina would speed up Cocteau Twins records so you could dance to them. Farina admits, “It was pretty empty a lot of times.” He now plays an estimated 300 shows a year to 300,000 people the world over.
Another of Shanahan’s favorite memories is of the years that Johnny Fiasco played the club. “He was one of the first ones to blend rock with hip-hop. He was even ahead of Run-DMC and Aerosmith. I mean he was doing mash-ups well before they were ever called mash-ups; he would just blend and beatmatch and beatmatch until he had it…. He bridged the two clubs [Smart Bar and Medusa’s]. He was the voice of Smart Bar for many, many years…”
The concept of spotlighting cutting-edge styles right before they break is predicated on industry prescience and really, really good taste in music. Without sufficient amounts of both, it just doesn’t work. In the first year, pioneering hip-hop group Afrika Bambaataa played at the club; seminal early house DJs Frankie Knuckles and Joe Smooth performed regularly; and Ministry and Trent Reznor played tapes of the new “industrial music” they were creating in their studios. This is, of course, to say nothing of rock’s future luminaries who played concurrently upstairs in the Metro.
Similarly, Smart Bar played an important role in cultivating the second wave of house pioneers—Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, Diz, Miles Maeda, Justin Long, Sneak, Johnny Fiasco, Paul Johnson, to name only a few—that exported the now distinct Chicago house sound to the rest of the planet.
In the illicit warehouse raves and loft parties of the early to mid-nineties, you could find any one of these guys turning the party out. While the subculture would collapse and retreat to the clubs, it would bring back a new crowd—one that included Smart Bar’s current musical director, Brad Owen. In casual conversation a month ago, Kaskade described working with him as “the best case scenario.” If Owen’s tenure of the last four years provides any indication, the fabled Smart Bar lays in able hands for at least another twenty-four years.
Smart Bar’s 24th Birthday Weekend features Common Factor, Josh Werner, Brad Owen, Lee Foss, Kate Simko and Sassmouth on August 3, 10pm-4am, no cover; Mark Farina, J-Dub and James Curd on August 4, 10pm-4am, $15 cover; Ben Watt, DJ Lephtee and Brad Owen on August 5, 10pm-5am, $15 cover; at 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203.